The Women’s FA Cup kicked off ‘proper’ on Sunday with 136 teams competing in first round ties up and down the country. My team, Leeds Hyde Park, weren’t participating after we failed to muster eleven players for our second round qualifying tie. This weekend, though, our club manager Izzy said that it was probably a relief that we weren’t taking part.
In lieu of the magic of the cup, we were due to play a soggy West Riding County First Division match against Hepworth United — but, for the second week in a row, our boggy home pitch couldn’t accommodate 44 feet stomping all over it. Well, certain areas could, but a sharp turn and shoot in the far penalty box was off the cards and anyone trying to cut in from the left wing risked losing their boots to the mud forever.
It was good then, Izzy said, that we weren’t participating in the FA Cup because, famously, anyone can draw anyone, and how embarrassing would it be to invite Arsenal down to Elida Gibbs, our beloved, ineffective home swamp?
I explained that we would have had to have gone a bit further in the competition before inviting Caitlin Foord to Burley in her galoshes, but then, if Leeds United could get through to the fourth round on the Tadcaster Albion flood plain, why couldn’t we?
It’s hard not to get misty-eyed about the FA Cup. Watching Leeds United Women’s FA Cup highlights from Sunday, the barriers of a non-league ground lined with golf brollies reminded me of watching the men’s side lose at Histon back in 2008. I was an eleven-year-old who didn’t have a golf brolly but did have very wet feet, craning to see the ‘Whites’ rub mud all over themselves as they chased the ball around. When you put it like that, it sounds awful — but there was magic in the number of people from the surrounding villages who flocked to watch Histon because the big guns were in town.
I don’t know what the usual turnout is at Brookburn Road, home of West Didsbury and Chorlton, but they seemed to know what they were doing, singing and cheering as though the visit of Leeds United was no more special than any of the other teams who come and have a go. Though ‘you’re only here to watch the West Didsbury and Chorlton’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Just as there is something very early-stage FA Cup about playing a team whose name has seven syllables, United’s opening goal smacked of it too. Katie Astle was given the pleasure of turning home the sweatiest goal she’ll ever score, sticking out a leg as Harriet Jakeman fired a ball down the corridor of danger.
Leeds held the lead for nine minutes before Lucy Turner brought down pacey Chorlton (sorry West Didsbury, you’re too much of a mouthful) no.9 Taylor Gunn in the box. Skye Kirkham’s safe hands had rendered the foul redundant, but the Whites ‘keeper couldn’t take care of Gunn’s spot-kick and the hosts levelled to the delight of the fans packing the little shed behind Kirkham’s goal.
Called into cup action in first-choice shot-stopper Carrie Simpson’s stead, Kirkham will have wanted a clean sheet against lower-tier opposition, but as the churned-up turf got browner and browner, Kirkham’s sheet looked even less clean by the 47th minute, as a second Chorlton goal set the Whites on course for a third successive defeat.
United were rabid for an equaliser. Five minutes later, Leeds captain Olivia Smart whipped in a corner and the ball teased the goalmouth twice before Chorlton captain Rachel Mason finally turned it in. It wouldn’t be a cup tie without players turning on their heels to trade celebrations for grabbing the ball for the restart — but this game had delivered on all other fronts, so Astle was happy to accommodate.
After four separate goalscorers chipped in when Leeds slapped FC United of Manchester back in October, Whites full-back Charlyann Pizzarello said, “Our goals in training have been absolutely phenomenal, they’re just waiting to come out.” At Chorlton on Sunday, Sarah Danby decided the moment had come.
It would have looked way cooler if she banged in the ball from Kathryn Smith first time — but Danby is too cool for hot-headed glory shots. She had the time and space to roll it onto her left foot, and doing so meant it actually went in. From twenty yards, into the top corner. Most importantly, though, Danby celebrated her belter appropriately. There’s a time for a modest celebration — but this wasn’t it. She looked chuffed as anything as she fist-pumped Leeds into the lead with her first goal of the season.
There were 25 minutes left for West Didsbury and Chorlton to get an equaliser but United had other plans. It was plenty of time for Astle to grab a second and a third, Smart to assist two, and Smith to do her best impression of Danby by scoring a cracker from range — with minutes leftover for academy regulars Sian Gibrill-Keating and Abbie Langstaff.
For most teams, the blooding of youngsters is an FA Cup special, but Leeds are making a habit of it this season in all competitions. Astle is livin’ breathin’ scorin’ proof that it works. Last season, she was the league’s top scorer for the Reserves, and her weekend hat-trick means she’s fourth in the Division One North all-competitions scoring charts.
A girlhood United fan, teenager Astle couldn’t hide her smile as she assessed her work so far after the win.
“I’m pretty happy for myself, you know, just coming up this season,” she said. “It’s been good for me — but also it’s just about the team and getting as many goals as we can and getting through to the next round of the FA Cup.”
United’s 6-2 win over West Didsbury and Chorlton earned them a second round tie against Darwen, which will be played away on November 26th. Next, though, Leeds start their County Cup campaign with a second round tie against Ripon City. ⬢